The Protean Internet of Things


(Blog): There is more to IoT than meets the eyes… Greek mythology offers allegories and references that are often useful in colouring and apprehending today’s reality. Such is the case of the legend of Proteus, the sea god who could, as the myth goes, assume any shape at will. Proteus’s chameleon-like camouflaging ability illustrates strikingly well the current state of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Conference after conference, survey after survey, and article after article, it becomes growingly clear that IoT, although steadily gaining momentum, is not well understood by the public at large including those who are IoT companies’ target customers. One of the reasons might be its protean nature: while integral to a wide array of ecosystems, IoT takes other forms and hides behind a different name. Like the bourgeois gentleman of the French playwright Molière who was amazed to learn that, unbeknownst to him, he had spoken prose all his life, many would be surprised by IoT’s already pervasive presence.

At its roots, IoT relates to a new stage in the evolution of society. It is a vision about the emergence of a global infrastructure for the information society. Thanks to converging technologies, “things” can now be identified and become another node in a vast global intercommunication sphere. From a technological perspective, we are capable of activating any everyday object, actually anything!

This is a vertiginous step for humanity, which should change forever the way we work, play and, altogether, live. Therefore, an IoT discussion must integrate the radical transformation of society. However, this crucial discussion is taking place in a piecemeal fashion, in many silos, which are not often interconnected.

The IMAGE of IoT

Modelling IoT is, by and large, about assembling five components. At Georgia Tech’s Internet-of-Things Center (CDAIT), we find the IMAGE representation to be an effective guide for action. The foundational elements consist of an interface (I), most of the time a sensing or actuating device; a medium (M), i.e., a wireless, wired or hybrid network (we may include the gateway for sake of simplicity); and an application (A) that captures data from and/or sends instructions to the device. These elements need to be yoked together with some type of ‘glue’ (G), whether, for example, through ensuring security, privacy and trust and / or providing a seamless quality of service including a reliable power source (the ‘glue’ has many other dimensions). Finally, the information extraction (E), which increasingly involves Big Data analytics and other cloud computing-based approaches, makes sense of the harvested data.


A host of IoT-like ecosystems

As simple as it is, IMAGE can be found at the heart of many ecosystems, all displaying IoT’s essential characteristics. The following sample list comprises topics whose kinship with IoT is undeniable and straightforward:

Academic and industry research and focus – ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, human-computer interaction, cyber-physical systems, wireless sensor networks, wireless sensor and actuator networks, intelligent supply chain and logistics, advanced and smart manufacturing, intelligent transportation systems, total asset visibility, smart building / home automation, telehealth / telemedicine, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Big Data, and Smart Grid;

National strategic policies – Industry 4.0 (Germany), Sensing China, ubiquitous network societies (e.g., u-Japan and u-Korea) and Digital Lifestyle Malaysia; and

Company perspectives– Social Web of Things / Networked Society (Ericsson), Internet of Things and Services (Bosch), Smarter Planet (IBM), Digital Life (AT&T), Internet of Everything (Cisco, Qualcomm, etc.), Industrial Internet (GE), Thinking Things (Telefónica), Wireless Connectivity for Embedded Device (Broadcom), Lab of Things (Microsoft) and Central Nervous System of the Earth (HP).

This brief tally is extracted from a larger population that also includes vertical market associations and forums in addition to organisations highlighting IoT and / or machine-to machine communications (M2M) as such.

Within the above groups, it is not difficult to identify the IMAGE components and the related underlying process. All are about automatically capturing (viz. sending) data and translating them into knowledge and action. All are about the advent of IoT. Manufacturing plays a central role in this regard. While production processes are optimised via the insertion of IoT technologies, at the same time, the newly manufactured products are gradually incorporating IoT capabilities, which can and will be exploited by a range of service providers.

An embarrassment of riches?

The existence of a myriad of IoT-centered ecosystems would seem to be a bonanza for IoT. It certainly helps, but absent a ubiquitous thread (some would say a lingua franca or unifying language), the casual observer is hard put to extract a common signal out of a noisy background. There is not yet a widespread, foundational (engineering) framework cutting across all IoT environments, which incidentally some cyber-physical systems (CPS) initiatives are in the process of building (see recent CPS educational project at the U.S. Computer Science and Telecommunications Board commissioned by the U.S. National Science Foundation). The multiplicity of IoT-related communities and areas has led some IoT market commentators to refer to ‘internets of things’ rather than a single ‘internet of things’, and prompted discussions about the need for a glue to cement the many parts into an overarching market architecture replacing the current patchwork of isolated silos.

The need for better communication and increased awareness

While the IoT web is being woven progressively, the very IoT concept remains somewhat fuzzy to a broad audience. It has been said, in some form or another, that it exists more in PowerPoint presentations than reality, and it is not an idea that is easily communicated.

Admittedly, IoT must overcome many challenges, both technological (interoperability, quality of service, spectrum availability, scale, etc.) and human (privacy, security, trust, business models, regulation, policy, etc.) before it is woven into the fabric of everyday life and becomes indistinguishable from it (prescient words about the most profound technologies from the late Marc Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing). But it is already here, very much present in a plethora of ecosystems. It is not because it is difficult to discern that it does not exist.

It is hard to argue, however, with the vital need to improve communication and increase the awareness, among businesses and consumers, of IoT’s huge potential and capabilities. As IoT will be fusing with the ‘Internet of People’, the ‘Internet of Everything’ will emerge where the internet acts as the backbone of a hyper-connected society.

In the meantime, there is a lot of work to be done to educate and train the current and future workforce on IoT as a whole, including the impact of the integration of ‘things’ as communicating agents in the economic fabric. The ‘Internet of Things’ is not a technology, at least not a single one; it is more a metaphor than a thoroughly delineated domain, which, to seize the imagination, highlights in an arresting combination of words, a critical stage in the metamorphosis of the global society. Whereas it wears many faces and masks, it is, in the aggregate, a powerful undertow in the process of profoundly reshaping the world.

The author of this blog is Alain Louchez, managing director of the CDAIT, Georgia Institute of Technology

The CDAIT is the Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies, Georgia Institute of Technology. Alain Louchez is also chairman of the Steering Committee for the international Workshop on Internet of Things organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on February 18, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland.


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